When Rafael Nadal finally secured the year-end No. 1 ranking this past week after being out of tennis for seven-and-a-half months, he was widely recognized as the player of the year. And why not? He had swept the summer swing, a stretch that included titles in Montreal, Cincinnati and the US Open. Nadal had become the first player since Andy Roddick a decade earlier to pull off what is arguably one of the most arduous feats in the sport. Nadal has won a tour-best 10 titles in 2013, and he could add an 11th if he can win one more match at the ATP World Tour Finals. Player of the year for the king of the comeback, no question about it. Yep, no question.
Except for one thing: There is a question, a pocket-sized one, anyway. He's not the player of the year quite yet. Like life itself, tennis is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately trade. And no one has been better lately than Novak Djokovic, who took care of Stanislas Wawrinka 6-3, 6-3 to reach the championship match in London. So before we dish out the MVP honors to Nadal, let's all wait and see how the final plays out between them Monday and then start the deliberations.
A few hours after Nadal ended Roger Federer's run at the O2 Arena, Djokovic set up a fitting finale to the 2013 season. The world's top two players will meet for the 39th career time, a record between any two players. Nadal leads the series 22-16 but lost their last match, at Beijing a few weeks ago. Nadal, though, has a 3-2 edge this season, which includes their most notable clash, the US Open final.
"Well, it doesn't matter which tournament that we play, whenever we play each other, especially in last few years, there is a lot on the line, and there's so much to play for," Djokovic told reporters afterward. "It's a huge motivation for both of us to win against the biggest rival. We played close to 40 times against each other. As I said, it's very tense. We push each other to the limit."
Djokovic played an efficient match, breaking Wawrinka four times in a workmanlike 1 hour, 25 minutes. Djokovic, who improved to 15-2 in his career against his semifinal opponent, has now won 21 straight matches, the third-longest streak of his career, and has strung together a healthy nine-match win streak at the year-end championships.
Since the Open, Djokovic has been unstoppable. He rolled through the Asian swing and opened up the World Tour Finals by sweeping aside Federer for the second time in four days, a match that left the venerable Swiss star in something of a swoon -- actually, it was more of a confessional. For the first time, a pensive Federer admitted he was mentally cracking under pressure.
Tennis is a funny, fleeting game, and as Djokovic has demonstrated, momentum can shift abruptly. His remarkable stretch includes two Masters 1000 titles, in Shanghai and Paris last week, and four wins so far in London.
"I'm trying to take a lot of positive energy out of this confidence and out of this run that I had," Djokovic said. "I won against [Nadal] in the finals of Beijing in straight sets and I played a great match.
"I liked the way I improved in our matches. I like that I changed a few things that allowed me to win against him."
We obviously didn't fully recognize the fire still sizzling in Djokovic after he came up short in New York. This is a player, after all, who transformed his game, mind and training in very tangible ways to achieve what he has so far. In 2011, Djokovic won 43 straight matches and three Grand Slam titles and ran away with the year-end world No. 1 ranking. Last year, he repeated as the top-ranked player and capped his season by winning the year-enders. And now, once again, Djokovic is roasting the field as the season winds down.
"Well, the season has been long, but I cannot complain because this is something I was very aware about when I was preparing myself for the end of the season," Djokovic said. "I knew I'm going to have back-to-back weeks playing on a very high level against top-10 players, then coming into Belgrade trying to win with my teammates for our country a second Davis Cup title."
Djokovic had a chance to take back the No. 1 ranking from Nadal heading into London, but his chances were slim. As it turns out, Nadal officially corralled the top spot with two wins in the round-robin stage en route to the final. But for a while it added an extra layer of intrigue into this year's championships. According to the ATP World Tour, this was the first time since the 2009 Barclays year-enders that the year-end No. 1 ranking was up for grabs.
Top ranking or not, Djokovic's steadfast approach to winning cannot be underplayed. He could have easily languished or, at a bare minimum, played a more judicious schedule and rest after letting the final Slam of the year get away from him. Nadal was, as it turned out, the central focus of the tennis world.
This is the time of year when players notoriously lose steam. We saw that in Victoria Azarenka during the women's year-end event. And even though Serena Williams won Istanbul, she said she was fried from the most prolific season of her career. Even Nadal had played less-than-stellar tennis in recent months before the onset of the ATP World Tour Finals. His totals since the Open: three events, zero titles.
Let's be clear here, though. What Nadal accomplished after the setback he had is nothing short of miraculous. Djokovic said after his match that Nadal was playing with more aggression and leveraging his serve much better than he ever has. The Spaniard strung together a career year -- even after missing the first major of the year in Australia and losing in the first round of Wimbledon. And to be fair, it's almost impossible to maintain that type of level for an entire season, even for the tour's elite.
But as impressive as Nadal's run has been so far, it's Djokovic who looks like he's the one out for redemption, if not retribution. So who's the favorite when the top two players clash in less than 24 hours?
"Look, we are both having a great season this year," Djokovic said. "This is probably the best possible final we have here in London. We'll see what happens tomorrow."
Translation: It's anyone's guess.
Bryans reach London finale
Bob Bryan and Mike Bryan have thoroughly ravaged the tennis field this season. So like Djokovic and Nadal, it's only fitting that the world's best doubles team will play in the ATP World Tour Finals championship match.